When Paul teaches the Church at Ephesus concerning their structure and function as a Church he speaks of them as a Body (1:22-23; 2:16; 3:16; 4:4, 12, 16), a Building (2:20-22) and a Bride (5:23-33). Again when Paul is writing his first letter to the Church at Corinth he speaks of them as a Body. In ch.12 from v12-27, the word “body” is mentioned 17 times. He is emphasizing that the church must function like a body. It must be in unity, order and balance.
In v18, he says the God has “…set the members every one of them in the body…” This word “set” means to appoint or to put in place. So we see that God Himself has put every single member of the body in a certain specific place according to His own will. Everybody has a function in the body as a “member” and there is great diversity in this.
But in v28, he says “…God hath set some in the Church…” This is now a limited function. He is telling us now that there are other functions of the body which he has restricted to some or a few. Everybody in the body cannot function in these, only those God has put in place to function in this manner. These limited functions begin with “first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers…” etc
He goes on to say “And God hath set some in the church…governments,” The whole body cannot be governments, it is some out of the whole body who are chosen and separated by God to be governments. There must be governments in the body, this was God’s plan, and these governments carry out specific tasks which the rest of the body does not.
This word “Governments” meanssteering; piloting;directing. This is a nautical term used by sailors down over the ages. A similar Greek word is used in Acts 27:11 for a master of a ship and again in Rev.18:17 for a shipmaster.
We read of some making shipwreck by putting away faith (I Tim.1:19). Paul was literally shipwrecked three times during his travels so realized that governments in the church was just as vital as having a good captain in a ship when out at sea, especially in a storm.
In James 3:4 we are told “Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.”
If we take this as a parallel to our present lesson we can learn that a church, though very large with many people will be driven of many fierce winds; winds of heresy, winds of devilish doctrines, winds of confusion, temptations, troubles and persecutions. There are many winds which can blow across a church and lead to disaster just like a shipwreck. So what is God’s answer? If a whole church full of people is vulnerable to such storms then how has God provided for such?
It says in this verse that a captain (governor) with his hand on the small rudder (helm) can steer through such storms. This is God’s answer. The word used here for Governor or the captain of the ship literally means to straighten (level); technically to steer: - governor, make straight. This same word is used of John the Baptist’s ministry in making the way of the Lord straight (Jn.1:23). Twice in Paul’s travels we read of the boat he travelled on making a “straight course” (Acts 16:11; 21:1).
So we see first that a Governor is one who steers
Secondly he is one who steers a straight course
In Genesis 42:6 Joseph was made “Governor” over all of Egypt to direct all affairs in guiding the nation through the seven years of famine. God had specially gifted and enabled him for this task; none other could have done it. This is a perfect example of a man’s gift making room for him. A man’s gift can lift him out of utter obscurity in a forgotten prison cell to guide and lead a nation to safety.
We badly need God-given governments in the church at this present time which will be able to lead the church forward on a straight God-given course. And as we pray and believe God is well able to raise up gifted men out of obscurity, in this crisis hour, to guide the church through to victory.
We shall quickly see as we study scripture that the local government or local leadership of God in the Old Testament was that of Eldership. Again in the New Testament Church it was also Eldership.
Elders were placed over villages, towns, cities and the nation in the Old Testament (Ex.3:16, 18; 4:29; 12:21; 17:5-6; 18:12; 19:7; 24:1, 9, 14). Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon and Ezra upheld this form of leadership. Prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Joel directed their message to the Elders of Israel.
All of this shows its vital place amongst God’s people in the OT. The Patriarchs passed away and Judges were raised up in their place after which Kings were set up. But during all these diverse era’s local elders functioned amongst God’s people. A cooperate group of mature elders sitting in council together was God’s basic ordained means of leadership and government.
When Moses led Israel out of Egyptian captivity as their God-ordained leader and deliverer we are told that he “sat to judge the people: and the people stood by Moses from the morning unto the evening.” (Ex.18:13). After hearing their cause he made “them know the statutes of God, and his laws.” When Jethro, his father-in-law, saw this he wisely pointed out that this was not good as he would wear himself and the people out. He said “this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone.”
And so he gave Moses wise council “Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens:” Ex.18:21
Before this there were mature men amongst the people of Israel called elders but now Moses set’s apart the elders as the leadership of the nation who were to “be over” the people as “rulers.”This was the wisdom of God.
He was to teach these men the Word of God and teach them how to live their personal life according to it as well as what their responsibilities in the work of God were. This was the priority in training leadership. Although as already said, Israel had elders to lead them all through there captivity this was a renewal and defining of the call, task and responsibility of the elders in the nation of Israel.
Again we see a little later, 70 elders were specifically separated out and anointed to be God’s government in the nation and to carry the burden of the people alongside Moses. It is amazing that these very necessary leaders remain nameless and faceless to us throughout long ages. One thing is sure they were very well known by the people and were very necessary in the life of the nation.
And so, local plural eldership was carried on until the days of Christ’s ministry. At this time the Jewish synagogues were still ruled by elders.
The 1st mention of Elders in the NT Church
Elders are mentioned about 200 times in the Bible and 19 of these in the NT relate to the Church. It becomes very clear that the term “elders” defined the local static leadership of the New Testament Church.
At the beginning of Acts 11 we read of “apostles” and “brethren” in Judea but no elders. “And the apostles and brethren that were in Judaea…” (v1). But by the end of the chapter we have the first mention of elders functioning amongst the early church, “…determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea: Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.” (v29-30). They appear suddenly without explanation fully functioning in a leadership role under the governance of the first apostles.
Why do they appear so suddenly at the end of this particular chapter? This chapter lays before us the beginning of the opening up of the door of the Gospel to the Gentiles by Peter. When this news first reaches the Apostles in Jerusalem there are no elders in place but in the light of all this beginning to happen elders were set apart for the task of local leadership.
If the apostles were to fulfil their calling to evangelize the nations in the days ahead then there must be a static eldership in place to function as the government of God. This chapter marks the beginning of the spread of the gospel to the nations. Over the following years the elders were raised up in the Church at Jerusalem to govern (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23, 16:4).
In these early chapters we see that the responsibility first administered by the Jerusalem elders was the handling of the finance received from Antioch (11:30). By chapter 15 we see them involved in doctrinal disputes. At the Jerusalem council we see that the local government rested with the “apostles and elders” (15:2, 4, 6, 22-23, 16:4).
Much later in 21:18 we read that when Paul visited Jerusalem that “James; and all the elders were present.” It seems that the other apostles were not present in Jerusalem at this time, and were probably out itinerating in other regions and nations.
Paul and Eldership
After the initial appearance of Eldership in the Church at Jerusalem and during they’re establishment as the government of that church we see Paul stepping out into the Gentile world in apostolic ministry.After pioneering churches in various towns Barnabas and Paul did not stop and settle into local ministry but continued pressing forward in apostolic ministry into new areas.
Then “…they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch…And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.” (Act 14:21). First, churches were pioneered, then “elders” ordained. This was the first government ordained and set in place in these first gentile churches.
Again many years later we see Paul giving Titus the same instructions, “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee:” (Tit.1:5).
On a local level we see no other higher government than the eldership within each church in each town or city. It was certainly a priority to the apostles that local elders beraised up.
Elders, Bishops and Overseers are Biblical terms used for the very same office of leadership in the local church and are used interchangeably in the Bible.
Elders [G4245] = presbuteros; elderly; older; a seniority; - this simply spoke of maturity; primarily physical age but also of being spiritually mature or a leader over a local church (not a novice). In Greek culture this term was given to new commissioners of newly acquired colonies.
Bishops, or Overseers [G1985] = episkopos; a superintendent; overseer; to watch over; inspection; investigation; [G1984=episkopē] Paul used this term when pioneering new Churches into Gentile areas.
First we see that Elders were the same as Overseers, “And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders (presbuteros) of the church...Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers (episkopos)…” (Act 20:17, 28).
Then we see that Elders were the same as Bishops, “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders(presbuteros)in every city, as I had appointed thee...For a bishop(episkopos) must be blameless,” (Tit 1:5, 7).
Again we see that it was the Elders who were the oversight of the Church, “The elders(presbuteros) which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight (episkopeo)thereof,…” (I Pet.5:1-2)
Please take good note that it was a plurality of elders who were the oversight of the local church. “Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops (episkopos) and deacons:” He does not mention Elders here, but note the term ‘bishops’ is plural and over one church in one city which is exactly the same as elders. (Php.1:1). Why are they needed?
The Prophet Ezekiel deals with the terrible state of Gods people in the OT when there are no Elders or Shepherds, the result is that they are scattered. “And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them.” (Eze.34:5-6). We see clearly that without good godly elders God’s people will be scattered. This is the one major result of a breakdown in local leadership.
Again we see the same when Christ came ministering amongst God’s people. “But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd.” (Mat 9:36). As a result “he began to teach them many things” (Mk.6:34).
As a result of this terrible situation he said “unto his disciples, The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourersare few; Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest.” (v37-38). Then after a night of prayer He called unto Him His twelve disciples and sent them forth as apostles in order to deal with the multitudes scattered without a shepherd (Mt.10:1).
In all of this we see the absolute necessity for God-ordained leadership if God’s people are to be preserved from being like scattered sheep on the hillsides. Again we see the result of Christ having been smitten and removed, “…for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad.” (Mt.26:31).
It is no wonder then that the apostles were so eager to ordain elders in each local church.